Nichkhun: The 'shy little boy' turned K-Pop sensation
When Thai-American youngster Nichkhun was approached by talent scouts asking if he wanted a shot at pop superstardom, he didn't hesitate for a second.
“I was like, no!” he says. “I don't even know who you guys are, you know? I didn't know how to sing or dance. I was just like some shy little boy, so I was like, no way I'm doing this!”
Fortunately for K-Pop fans, the scouts, from legendary South Korean pop producer Jin-young Park's company JYP Entertainment, persisted. Following a string of phone calls, a ramshackle audition took place outside a Starbucks in Los Angeles, where they had all been attending a South Korean cultural festival.
“They were like, sing something! So I sang something, and it was bad, and they were like, OK, this is not going to work. About three weeks later they called me back and said, 'We'd like you to come to Korea and start training.'”
But Nichkhun's unorthodox recruitment is far from the only thing setting this young pop sensation apart. In South Korea's distinctly homogenous entertainment industry, Nichkhun is that rarest of things: a foreigner.
A rare commodity
Born in the United States to a Thai father and a Thai-Chinese mother, Nichkhun moved to Thailand aged two, spent 10 years there, studied English in New Zealand for a couple of years, and then completed his schooling back in the States. While there, he met the men who would take him to JYP and fame with boyband 2PM.
It was, by any standards, a dizzying life transformation. But far from being dazzled by the changes, this cosmopolitan idol-in-waiting took his new home largely in his stride.
“I've moved around a lot,” he says. “So [apart from the language] I didn't have any big culture shocks.” But when the hard work began, so did the doubts.
“When I saw these other guys, they were just so good at everything -- singing, dancing. And they're Korean, so I just couldn't imagine how I could fit into the industry,” he says. “But [my parents] were like, no, don't give up. So I listened.”
Thus inspired, Nichkhun threw himself into JYP's famously rigorous training with the added impetus of having something to prove.
“I don't like it, but I admit that I'm known for my face,” he says. “So I put myself under pressure. I want people to see how much I've improved.”
Along with his 2PM bandmates, that can mean waking up at 5 a.m., following a grueling schedule of promotions and practice, and then crawling to bed at 1 the next morning.
“When I meet some American pop singers, they're like, is that even legal?” says Nichkhun.
The punishing workload has its downsides. He only gets to go home once a month, when he can replenish himself on Thai food and spend a little time with his family. And dating (to the undoubted relief of his adoring fans) is, he says, simply not possible.
Now one album and four EPs into their career -- which has followed the usual boyband arc from boyish to more rugged, with latest release Still 2:00PM --Nichkhun and his bandmates are dreaming bigger. In June this year they embarked on a breathless, nine-day, nine-city tour of the United States supporting label mates The Wonder Girls.
“It was amazing playing to such a mixed crowd, with lots of black people and lots of whites, too,” he says. “And it was so surprising to hear them call our names. I was like, am I dreaming?”
It's all a far cry from the self-professed “shy little boy” from Thailand, who says he can still return to his homeland free of the adulation that now follows him in South Korea.
“People know me, but since I don't work a lot in Thailand they just say, oh, it's that guy who's a K-pop star. That's about it,” he says.
“I think, not just Thai people, but anybody could be in my spot. Because I started below zero, you know; I had no singing background, no dancing, nothing. I think it's a matter of how hard you work and how much you want it.”